Great Chart: Gold price vs. Negative-yielding debt

Empirical researchers have demonstrated that gold has had many drivers over the past few decades, but has been mainly influenced by interest rates, inflation trends, the US Dollar, stock prices and central banks reserve policies. Baur and McDermott (2010) also shows that the precious metal plays the of a safe ‘zero-beta’ asset in periods of market stress and equity selloffs. For instance, in the last quarter of 2018, US equities (SP500) fell by 14% while the price of gold in US Dollars was up 7.6%. In the short run, participants usually look at the co-movement between gold price and real interest rate (TIPS) to define a fair value of the precious metal (gold price rises when real yields fall and vice versa).

However, gold has shown a stronger relationship with another variable in recent years: the amount of negative-yielding debt around the world. This chart shows us the striking co-movement between the two times series. After oscillating around USD 8 trillion between the beginning of 2016 and the end of 2018, the amount of negative-yielding debt doubled to nearly USD 17 trillion in the first half of 2019 amid political uncertainty and concerns over global growth, levitating gold prices from $1,280 to $1,525. However, we have noticed that investors’ concern has eased in the past two months, normalising global yields (to the upside), increasing the US 2Y10Y yield curve back to 25bps after turning negative in the end of August, therefore reducing preference for ‘safe’ assets such as bonds. The amount of debt yielding below 0% has dropped significantly since the end of August to USD 11.6 trillion this week, dragging down gold prices to $1,460. We think that market participants have overreacted to the global growth slowdown in the first half of the year and that the rise in leading indicators we have observed in the past three months (i.e. global manufacturing PMI) will continue to push preference for risk-on assets. The amount of negative-yielding debt could easily come back to its 2016-2018 8-trillion-dollar average in the following months, hence emphasising the downward pressure on gold prices. It looks like gold is set to retest the $1,350 – $1,400 support zone in the short run (which used to be its resistance zone before the 2019 rally).

Chart.  Gold price (in USD) vs. amount of negative-yielding debt (tr USD) – Source: Bloomberg, Eikon Reuters.

Gold

 

 

Great Chart: SP500 vs. US Treasuries (Risk Adjusted)

In this chart, we look at the performance of US equities relative to Treasuries over time. As you know, price volatility differs among different asset classes; hence, in order to compare the relative performance of equities versus risk-free securities, we need to vol adjust. Using monthly times series of total returns of the Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index and the SP500 index, we calculate monthly returns of each asset class and then adjust our US Treasuries exposure using the 1-year realised volatility of equities. We also rebalance our portfolio every single month so that the volatility of each asset remains constant.

As you can notice, the SP500 index has lost 65% of its value relative to bonds since January 1974, with a high of 77% reached in the last quarter of 2010. Moreover, in the past two economic downturns, equities have lost 20% of their values between 1999 and 2002 and 12% of their value between 2007 and 2009. We saw last year that US 10Y nominal yield topped at 3.25% and struggled to break higher despite a nominal growth close to 6% in the United States. With yield plummeting to 2% in the past 6 months, the bond market is currently pricing in a sharp deceleration of economic activity and some practitioners are expecting rates to fall to zero percent as fear over a 2020 recession have increased dramatically. This raises the following question: should we expect Treasury bonds to significantly outperform US equities once again in the next economic downturn?

Chart. SP500 vs. US Treasuries – Total Return. Source: Bloomberg, Eikon Reuters

Great Chart: US Yield Curves: 5Y30Y vs. 3M10Y

On Friday (March 22nd), the disappointing German PMIs led to little sell-off in global equities and a rise in risk-off assets such as government bonds and safe-haven currencies (i.e. JPY, CHF). For the past month, we have been warning that the elevated uncertainty in addition to the low level of global yields were challenging the healthiness of the equity recovery since the beginning of the year. Moreover, fundamentals have been fairly weak overall (in the US, China and even in the Euro area), with leading economic indicators diverging from equities’ performance. For instance, many indicators have been pricing in a slowdown in the US economic activity, however the SP500 index is up approximately 14 percent year-to-date and trading 100pts short from its all-time highs reached in the end of September last year.

With the German 10Y yield falling in the negative territory, the amount of debt trading below 0 percent reached $10tr, up $2tr since the beginning of the year. In addition, the divergence between the 3M10Y and 5Y30Y yield curved have continued; while the 3M10Y turned negative (gaining all the market’s attention), the 5Y30Y has been trending higher in recent months, up 40bps to 66bps in the past 6 months. In this great chart, we can notice an interesting observation: each time the 5Y30Y has started to steepen before the end of the economic cycle, the 3M10Y followed the move 6 months later. We know that the critical moment of the business cycle is when the yield curve is starting to steepen dramatically. Hence, should we worry about the steepening of the 5Y30Y?

Chart. 3M10Y vs. 5Y30Y (6M Lead) – Source: Eikon Reuters

US yield

Why have reserves fallen so dramatically since 2014?

The introduction of QE in order to re-instaure financial stability first and then bring back appetite for risky assets has led to an incredible expansion of the central banks’ balance sheet. For instance, the Fed’s total assets increased from roughly $900bn in the summer of 2008 to $4.5tr in 2015 after several rounds of monetary stimulus (see recap of QE history here). The purchase of those financial securities (Treasuries and MBS) through commercial banks led to a significant increase in reserves held at the Fed, which soared from a negligible amount prior the crisis to a high of $2.8tr in August 2014.

Then in October 2017, the Fed began Quantitative Tightening (QT), which consists in unwinding those massive portfolios and normalizing monetary policy. Since then, the Fed’s total assets balance has declined by roughly $500bn to $4tr, of which $2.2tr of Treasuries and $1.6tr of MBS. However, on the liability side, we noticed a strong reduction of reserves by approximately $1.2tr since their highs (current reserve balances of $1.6tr). Why have reserves fallen so dramatically since 2014?

The chart on the left shows the different components of the Fed’s balance sheet liabilities. While the excess reserves are down by $1.2tr, the currency in circulation and the Treasury balances have increased by $423bn and $291bn, respectively. The other smaller liabilities are foreign currency holdings and the reverse repurchase agreements (reverse repos, RRPs), which are roughly flat since 2014. Therefore, the increase in currency outstanding and Treasury balances accounted for $714bn, which confirms that the remainder is associated with the shrinkage of the Fed’s asset holdings (i.e. $500bn).

Reverse repos and Monetary Base

Even though the dollar amount of reverse repos is roughly at the same level where it was in 2014 (USD 250bn), an interesting observation arises when we look at the times series of the monetary base and reverse repos (figure 1, right frame). The monetary base, which is the sum of the currency in circulation and reserve balances, fell from $4.1tr in August 2014 to $3.4tr in January 2017 although the Fed had not started its QT process (assets were steady at $4.5tr). The fall in reserves was partly offset by an increase in reverse repos, which soared from $230bn to $520bn during the same period. This means that the Fed was already tightening its monetary policy back then by draining the banking system of the reserves it had created. The monetary base was reduced as the Fed was lending out its bonds in exchange for the reserves that the bond purchases created (transactions called reverse repos). Banks reserves are therefore temporarily reduced, replaced by ‘reverse repurchase agreements’.

Figure 1. Fed liabilities, monetary base and reverse repos (Source: FRED)

Repo Fed

Phillips Curve and Wage Inflation Dynamics

Abstract: Debates around the Phillips curve, a long-time relationship between unemployment and wage inflation, have been haunting both academics and practitioners over the past few years. Despite unemployment rate at its lowest level in decades, wage growth has been weak in most of the developed countries. There can be various factors that may be playing a part, ranging from a collapse in the rate of union membership for private-sector employees to a higher concentration of large firms (employers have become monopsonists, impacting level of wages). Therefore, in this article, we review the development of the Phillips Curves in the major development economies and look at the short-run and long-run determinants of wage inflation according to recent empirical research.

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Great Chart: USD REER vs. VEU/SPY

An interesting observation arises when we plot the annual change in the US Dollar with the relative performance of US vs. World (ex-US) equities. As you can notice it in the chart, the World (ex-US) equity market tends to outperform the US market when the US Dollar is weakening. For instance, the US Dollar (USD REER) performance in 2018 led to  an outperformance of US equites (SPY) over World (VEU) up to 20% before the last quarter.

In addition, this chart shows that the annual change in the USD tends to mean revert over time, fluctuating between -10 and +10 percent. Hence, investors could not only benefit from playing the range on the greenback, but also speculate on equity relative performance between US and non-US stocks. As we expect the US Dollar to weaken through the course of the year, this could lead to a significant performance of the world (ex-US) equities. A weaker USD also eases the pressure in the EM corporate bond market, which is heavily USD-denominated, and therefore loosens financial conditions.

Chart. USD REER vs. US / World (ex-US) equities – YoY Change

 

Is it time to go long UK financial assets?

Last year, there were worries that the continued depreciation of the British pound was going to increase inflationary pressure in the UK economy and therefore force policymakers to start a hawkish tightening cycle. With uncertainty still significantly elevated, demand for Gilts would keep UK LT years at low levels and many analysts predicted a potential ‘yield curve inversion’ as one of the main outcomes for this year.

However, over the past few months, the fall in oil prices in addition to the 12M lagged currency ‘effect’ have been pressuring inflation expectations to the downside. Our model, which incorporates the annual change in currency and oil prices as two key inputs, has been predicting a correction in future inflation prints in the UK (figure 1, left frame). Therefore, with the short-term implied yield curves Dec19 Mar19 and Dec20 Dec19 trading at 19.5bps and 15bps, respectively, the market expects slightly less than two hikes by the end of 2020 (figure 1, right frame). This leaves policymakers more flexibility concerning their interest rate normalization policy after warning that Brexit uncertainty ‘intensified considerably’ in the end of last year.

Figure 1

Inflation model

Source: Eikon Reuters, RR

Mixed signs from leading indicators and surveys

As for many developed countries, industrial production has contracted significantly in the few couple of months of 2018, down 1.5% YoY in November. However, we can notice that our leading indicator recently ticked up and therefore is pricing a stabilization in the UK business activity (figure 2, left frame). It is still too early to switch our forecast to positive and therefore the next few data points will be important to watch in order to take a fundamental view on UK financial assets. On the other hand, the CFO survey from Deloitte is standing at 2016 critical levels, as CFOs expect uncertainty to impact business spending and lower hiring in the medium term.

Figure 2

Leading

Source: Eikon Reuters,

Uncertainty and firms’ investments

Empirical studies from the Bank of England found significant negative relationship between uncertainty and firm’s investments. For instance, Melolinna et al. (2018) found that the uncertainty, along with the cost of capital and macroeconomic fundamentals, has been an important driver of investment. The authors measure the uncertainty at a firm-specific level, which is the daily volatility in individual stock prices that cannot be explained by general market variation (CAPM model). Figure 3 (left frame) shows negative co-movement between uncertainty (HFM) and the UK business investment.

In another study, Smietanka et al. (2018) look at the macroeconomic uncertainty, which looks at the dispersion in surveys of professional forecasters. Figure 3 (right frame) also demonstrates a negative relationship between uncertainty (U) and the level of investment (dash line is a fitted line based on post-2008 sample).

Figure 3

Mel

Source: Melolinna et al. (2018), Smietanka et al. (2018)

Interesting risk premia for the long-run

Hence, the elevated uncertainty, combined with low consumption growth (consumption growth decreased from 0.9% annual prior the financial crisis to 0.3% post-Brexit) and a sluggish growth in the housing market are all going to weigh on the 3 to 6-month outlook, which may be reflected in asset prices. However, fundamentals in the UK have not deteriorated as in some of the European countries (i.e. France), and therefore we could expect an outperformance of UK assets relative to European ones. Figure 4 (left frame shows that the UK stock market appears cheap relative to the US and Europe.

Figure 4

Excess liquidity

Source: Bloomberg, Eikon Reuters, RR

What does it mean for the pound?

As we mentioned it in our latest FX Weekly, the British pound got strong support when it fell below the 1.25 level against the US dollar, therefore we think that buying Cable below that support could offer interesting returns for longer-term investors. As we expect the US dollar to weaken within the next 12 months (in our base scenario), currencies such as the euro and the pound could offset some of the USD weakness.

As we can see it in Figure 5, Cable is currently flirting with the 1.29 level, which corresponds to the 61.8% Fibo retracement of the 1.1975 – 1.4350 range and the 100-day SMA. A breakout of this area could lead us to the next retracement at 1.32. However, GBP may stabilize in the short term and therefore we think it could be interesting to play the crosses (long EURGBP and short GBPJPY). In addition, we can notice an interesting observation in figure 6, which shows the strong co-movement between GBPJPY and the world (ex-US) equities; we usually tend to look at AUDJPY as a proxy for risk-on / risk-off environment. Therefore, GBP could also be impacted by a small consolidation in the stock market.  

Figure 5

Cable

Source: Eikon Reuters

Figure 6

GBP and VEU

Source: Eikon Reuters

Can the SKEW/VIX predict market corrections?

Over the past few years, we have developed a series of indicators of market complacency in order to prevent investors of a sudden spike in price volatility after a long period of calm. One of them looks at the divergence between the Economic Policy Uncertainty EPU index (Baker et al., 2016), a measure of economic uncertainty based on newspaper coverage frequency, and the VIX. Figure 1 (right frame) shows that over the past few years, the EPU index has been displaying a much higher risk level that would be inferred from the options market. Some also watch the activity in the TED spread, which has been distorted since the financial crisis due to a tightening up of regulations and changes in money market funds (figure 1, right frame), and notice when it starts to stir.

Figure 1

Fig1 New

Source: Eikon Reuters

An interesting one looks at the behavior of the SKEW index relative to the VIX. As we previously mentioned, since the crash of October 1987 (Black Monday, DJ down 22.6%), investors have realized that S&P500 tail risk (returns that are under 2 or more standard deviations below the mean) is significantly greater than under a log-normal distribution. Therefore, the ‘skew’ measures the perceived tail risk of the market via the pricing of OTM options. A rise in skew indicates that ‘crash protection’ is in demand among institutional investors. A ‘low VIX/high skew’ combination says that the market is complacent, however the ‘big players’ perceive far more tail risk than usually. Therefore, a surprise increase in realized volatility may not be too far away.

Figure 2 shows the times series of the VIX, the SKEW and the weekly change in the SP500. As you can see, a sustain period of falling VIX and rising SKEW is generally followed by a sharp spike in implied volatility. For instance, while the VIX was approaching the 10 level in the summer of 2014, the SKEW index had been on a rise in the year preceding that period, rising from 113 in July 2013 to 146 in September 2014. In addition, the Fed stepped out of the bond market in October 2014 (end of QE3) and therefore exacerbated investors’ concern on the market. We then saw huge moves in both equities and bonds in the middle of that month and the 18-month period that followed was basically a flat equity market with some significant drawdowns (October 2014, August 2015 and December 2015 / January 2016). The second period we highlighted was in 2016 / 2017, which was marked by an extremely low volatility and a rising SKEW. We saw that things reverted drastically in the February VIX-termination event. Following this event, we eventually had another period of falling VIX and rising SKEW in the next months before the October sell-off. We can notice in the chart that the SKEW does not stay above the 150 threshold for too long, hence a VIX trading at around 12 and a SKEW at 150 were last summer were indicating a potential market turmoil.

Figure 2

Fig2 New (1)

Source: Eikon Reuters

The SKEW/VIX behavior does not predict a market correction all the time (i.e. the SKEW had been falling for months prior the August 2015 sell-off), however we think that investors should remain cautious when the SKEW starts to rise above 140 and the VIX remains low. While a falling VIX would push investors to increase their leverage (target vol strategies or risk parity funds), we think that looking at the two variables for portfolio construction could help reduce the potential drawdowns.

FX Cross-Currency Basis Swaps and Hedging Costs

One interesting topic in the FX market that has been closely studied by both academics and practitioners over the past decade is the violation of the covered interest parity (CIP). CIP is a textbook no-arbitrage condition that states that interest rate differential between two currencies should equal the differential between the forward and spot exchange rates. In other words, in discrete time, we have the following condition:

Where S is the spot exchange rate, F is the forward exchange rate, i is the domestic interest rate and i* is the foreign currency interest rate. The problem is that the above equation has held since the Great Financial Crisis; as it started to become more expensive to borrow US Dollars against most currencies during periods of stress, the cross-currency basis swap (CCBS) has been diverging from zero for the Euro, the British pound and the Japanese Yen. Figure 1 (left frame) shows the evolution of the 3-month CCBS for the three currencies (against the USD) since 2012.

Low interest rates combined with the significant divergence in unconventional monetary policies run by the BoJ and ECB over the years has put pressure on the exchange rates and the CCBS, and therefore has increased the hedging costs for Euro and Japanese investors. The current rate on the US 10Y Treasuries (3.15%) looks certainly very interesting for unhedged international investors (relative to domestic bonds such as in the Euro area or Japan), however changes drastically when we adjust for hedging costs. Figure 2 represents the cash-flows that occur at the start, during the term and at maturity when a Euro investor (A) enters a cross currency basis swap. As you can see, each quarter A pays the 3M USD Libor and receives the 3M Euribor and the basis. Hence, the more negative is the basis, the higher the hedging cost. With the 3M Euribor at -0.316%, the 3M CCBS at -44bps and the 3M Libor USD at 2.61%, the current return on a FX-hedged 10Y US Treasuries is negative (-20bps). Figure 1 (right frame) shows that despite the rise in US yields since the middle 2016, it has been falling for Euro and JPY investors after adjusting for FX hedging costs. A UK investor would get an annual return of 1.35%, which is 15bps below he can get in holding a 10Y Gilt.

Figure 1

Fig1.PNG

Source: Eikon Reuters

 

Figure 2

Fig2.png

Source: BIS